Aurora Group chief executive Stephen Bradshaw tells HealthInvestor UK how the recent acquisition of Foxes Academy could propagate further success stories – guided by the young people it supports
Since founding Aurora Group in late October 2015, chief executive Stephen Bradshaw has overseen the group’s growth to include 13 schools and colleges today, spanning children’s and adults’ services for people with autism and/or learning disabilities. Of these, three sites represent organic growth for the group – it opened two new children’s schools in Stoke and Surrey respectively in May and September, and a new service for adults, Boveridge College, in Dorset, also in September. But for the major part of a busy two-year journey, guided by a desire to ‘do things differently’, the group’s development from drawing board to delivery has been driven by acquisitions.
During the early days, that represented a chance to rescue and recover financially struggling schools, such as the former Scope properties Meldreth Manor School and Orchard Manor in Cambridgeshire, which had been scheduled to close.
In that respect, the acquisition of Foxes Academy in September marked something of a step change for the Octopus Healthcare-backed group. Rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, the academy for young adults with learning disabilities can justly be described as unique within the sector. Based in Minehead, Somerset, Foxes actually runs its own hotel, open to paying members of the public, as part of a mission to provide professional training and work experience within hospitality, alongside wider life skills. Over 86% of students from the past six years have achieved employment, with 87% going on to live semi-independently.
It’s the resounding success of these outcomes and the academy’s determination to equip its learners with the skills needed to contribute to society that appealed to Bradshaw and his colleagues. That message spoke strongly to the focus on outcomes that motivates the team at Aurora.
Looking around the sector in the lead up to launching Aurora, “we seemed to have a gap where adults really fell off the cliff after the colleges,” Bradshaw says. “In other words, they became ‘sofa kids’, they went back home to sit on the sofa – and the parents would panic. So we wanted really to create a system where youngsters became employable and we could demonstrate that they were employable and have that link.”
Aurora’s Boveridge College sets out to do exactly that. On a historic site with gardens created by renowned designer Gertrude Jekyll, Boveridge is positioned to “feed the passion of young people”, Bradshaw says. “We hope that youngsters with Asperger’s syndrome would be able to develop their own passion, whether their passion is horticulture, agriculture, events management or IT.”
It was as the team researched and developed their concept for Boveridge that they began to eye up Foxes as a potential partner in what Bradshaw sees as a “marriage of convenience”.
“There were very few people that were actually training young people into an employable stage, but one of the leaders in the market was Foxes, and obviously the attraction was it would accelerate our growth by not only doing it organically – because we’d looked at other buildings in the country – but also by acquiring Foxes,” he says.
With the group’s children’s and adults’ services currently standing at a ratio of around 80:20, Bradshaw is now eager to tip the scales further towards adults (eventually reaching about 60:40), as part of his mission to enable adults to transition from education to employment. He sees the Foxes acquisition as central to achieving this.
“The uniqueness of Foxes is that the work ethic is there from day one. The youngsters go onto a shift from when they start, they get supported in employment, they choose to go there – and it’s oversubscribed,” Bradshaw says.
The fact that Foxes’ up-to 84 student places run at around 100% occupancy at present suggests there is room to extend, however Bradshaw plans to maintain the current size in Somerset and instead reproduce its success further afield. In this, he is supporting the Foxes’ management team to “realise their own dream, within Aurora”, with two potential areas for development already identified as Cornwall and Bristol.
Bradshaw is also keen to think laterally, looking to the group’s financial backers Octopus Healthcare for the potential to develop yet more innovative models.
With Octopus’ investments in older persons’ housing and care home providers, for example, Bradshaw posits, “can we get links with those where we actually put a training college alongside a retirement village, which would allow our youngsters to have that opportunity to develop their skills, but also provide them with employment opportunities that are real?”
With a nod to Foxes’ success within catering and hospitality employment, he sees the potential for students and graduates to provide a genuinely valuable role in providing the “hard-to-get cleaners and domestics and kitchen staff to support those areas, so you’re using one service for supporting another”.
But the benefit of Octopus’ backing is also, more simply, having the space for such imagination, and Bradshaw counts his blessings that he can uphold an aim to be driven by outcomes, not profit.
“Like everybody we have to pay our bills and balance the books, but we’re not just hell bent on EBITDA and reaching the mandatory figure within three years to sell – we don’t have a length of time before we have to refinance or resell; the investors are in there for the long-term.”
This allows for a real focus on quality, and it’s this that will occupy the group’s attention for the next six months or so, as it looks to consolidate its acquisitions to date, before growing further.
“We’re pleased with the way the quality in the Ofsted and CQC rating are going, and we’re working with that. We will then look for another period of accelerated growth probably in another six months’ time through both acquisition and organic growth”.
In this, the group will be guided by the young people it supports, with the empowered, self-confident students of its most recent acquisition a clear source of inspiration.
“They’re looking outwards and really becoming the voice” of the academy, Bradshaw says. “It’s nothing to do with us or the staff, it’s the students that say – ‘look at us, we’re capable of doing this, and we can demonstrate that’.”
Health Investor: 30/10/2017